Considering we didn't have much of a governor's race, Louisiana voters sure settled a lot of scores on Oct. 22. Herewith our quadrennial assessment of the carnage — Da Winnas and Da Loozas.
1. Incumbents — A year ago, the Tea Party movement was a threat to all incumbents, including some Republicans. This year, incumbents ruled while the Tea Party sputtered. From Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and interim Secretary of State Tom Schedler to state lawmakers to parish council members, 2011 was a very good year for Louisiana incumbents. A huge number were not even opposed, and most of those who faced opposition held on to their jobs (exception: St. Bernard Parish, which makes its own rules). The reasons were twofold: voters generally were not angry this year; and opponents generally were not well-funded.
2. Gov. Bobby Jindal — Beyond his record-setting 65.8 percent vote, the governor wins because U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who tried to become the state's GOP kingmaker on Jindal's watch, failed so miserably in the attempt. Vitter gave Jindal an early but left-handed endorsement (calling on him to be "bold"), which reflected their behind-the-scenes tug-of-war for the hearts and minds (and pocketbooks) of Louisiana's GOP faithful. Jindal, who indeed is risk-averse, declined to take the bait; he stayed out of the contentious races for lieutenant governor and secretary of state. This time, Jindal's discretion was the better part of valor. He now can make nice with Dardenne and Schedler, whereas Vitter has earned yet another set of lifelong enemies. Jindal concentrated on several dozen legislative races and on most of the contests for seats on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), where he needed to make a difference. Most of the candidates he supported either won outright or made it to runoffs. In stark contrast to Vitter, Jindal has some scalps on his belt and some political momentum behind him. For added measure, he wasted no time anointing state Sen. John Alario of Westwego as his choice to be Senate president. Alario is the one senator Vitter did not want to win that job.
3. Moderate Republicans — Dardenne and Schedler were not aberrations. In legislative races as well, moderate Republicans were targeted by the extreme right wing of the GOP — but they survived. Two shining examples are Sens. Sherri Smith Cheek of Keithville and Dale Erdey of Livingston, both moderate Republicans from very conservative districts. They withstood a barrage of attacks from the far right — with no help from Jindal, Vitter or the state party.
4. Education Reformers — BESE elections used to be the province of teacher unions, but this year business interests realized that recent reforms embodied in the Recovery School District (RSD) could backslide if they didn't get involved and bolster Jindal's narrow majority on BESE. They picked up two BESE seats, lost one, and are poised to capture more in three runoffs on Nov. 19. They only need to win one more to give Jindal the eight-vote supermajority he needs to get RSD chief John White appointed state education superintendent.
5. Democrats — They forfeited the statewide races and lost some legislative seats to reapportionment, but Democrats managed to elect all their legislative incumbents who were targeted by Jindal, Vitter and the Tea Party. It's a rebuilding year for Louisiana Dems. Holding on to legislative seats is a good start.
1. Sen. David Vitter — After failing to unseat a single Democratic legislator, Vitter is not going to be the GOP kingmaker — and certainly not the king. At least, not any time soon. As recently as a month ago, politicos were speculating that Vitter would run for governor in 2015. A big part of that plan was knocking off Dardenne in the race for lieutenant governor and Schedler in the secretary of state contest — and taking out some entrenched Democrats in the Legislature. He failed on every count, even though he raised and spent $2 million or more in the effort. If Oct. 22 was any indication of how voters perceive Vitter and his take-no-prisoners political style, he should focus on his day job.
2. Mudslingers — In statewide as well as local races, voters were turned off by over-the-top attacks. Example: State Sen. Ben Nevers, a Democrat from Bogalusa, refused to attack his Tea Party opponent even though she and Vitter's PAC bombarded voters with slick mailers on a daily basis, accusing Nevers of everything except child abuse. Nevers pulled off a narrow victory with a TV ad that artfully showcased his down-home roots and his refusal to sling mud. This is not to say that attacks don't work. Think back to 2003, when Jindal refused to return fire on incumbent Kathleen Blanco in the governor's race. That decision cost Jindal the election. The lesson here is, there's no bright line defining the bounds of taste ... but voters know what's over the line when they see it.
3. Right-Wingers — The Tea Party is still angry, but the rest of Louisiana voters are not. This time we may be ahead of the national curve, as voters rejected the vitriol of the far right in favor of the mainstream. Example: Rep. John LaBruzzo, R-Metairie, carried the Jefferson Parish portion of his new district, but he got clobbered in Lakeview by fellow Rep. Nick Lorusso, also a Republican. Lakeview comprises 58 percent of the newly drawn House District 94, and voters there — though conservative — flatly rejected LaBruzzo's divisive tactics and his incendiary proposals for drug-testing welfare recipients and sterilizing poor women. Another example: Billy Nungesser's nonstop barrage against Dardenne in the lieutenant governor's race failed to carry the day. Though outspent by a significant margin, Dardenne's campaign message of "steady, conservative" seemed to capture perfectly what voters were looking for across the board.
4. Teachers' Unions — There are still three BESE races on the Nov. 19 ballot, but teachers' unions and others who oppose recent reforms in public education are clearly on the ropes.